Uncategorized | August 19, 2015

Moonrise Kingdom

By Kristine Somerville

I noticed about five years ago that among college-age students there’s a great divide between reading for pleasure and reading for class. Today when I walk into a creative writing workshop, students are sitting around the conference table with their noses stuck in books I’ve never heard of. They whisper about these works among themselves. To me they are speaking in code, kind of like fans of Games of Thrones. I just don’t get it, and I suspect they prefer it that way.

Current English majors are die-hard young adult fans, and they are not getting over it any time soon. They are seldom interested in required reading lists of canonical authors or the differences between literary and genre fiction.

In 2012 a research firm found that 55% of YA readers are actually adults. Twenty-eight percent of those buyers are between the ages of 30 and 44. It’s a phenomenon that’s difficult for both publishers and critics to explain. Some point to YA’s escapist appeal. Perhaps adult life has become so mundane that one wants to hang out on the page with vampires, witches and zombies. Others think it’s a form of nostalgia, a longing for their vanished youth. The most critical see it as indicative of a decline in literacy. Or perhaps parents just want to know what their kids are reading and then get hooked; after all, some of these novels are supposed to be pretty good.

Last year I asked my fiction writing class about the trend. Their response was largely one of disdain. In essence they felt their parents should “get a life.” Twilight, The Hunger Games, The Fault in Our Stars, Divergent, and Mortal Instruments belonged to them, though they thought it was okay if their parents saw the film adaptations (many of these books seem to be written with future movie franchises in mind).

My reading habits were different as a 12- to 17-year old, the age group for which these books are generally written. Rather than selecting from the teen-oriented books that took off in the 1960s and 1970s—novels by Judy Blume, Robert Cormier, S.E. Hinton, and Paul Zindel—I was reading the trashy bestsellers of the era, fat pulpy paperbacks full of the titillation of real sex rather than the virginal vampire kind.

Harold Robbins’ The Carpetbaggers was my favorite, a novel thought to be a thinly disguised portrayal of Howard Hughes though Robbins always denied it. No one thought it strange that I trucked around with a book by Robbins until I took The Lonely Lady to a slumber party and read out loud randy passages. My mother got a disapproving phone call the next day.

My steady reading diet also included Jacqueline Suzann’s Valley of the Dolls, Papillon, a memoir by convicted felon and fugitive Henri Charriére, unauthorized Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe biographies, and Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, a book that offered up Hollywood’s best kept and darkest secrets. I think I was the only kid in junior high who knew the story of Fatty Arbuckle’s demise or how Jane Mansfield met her end. The junk I was reading certainly prepared me for the future of reality TV since I was already fascinated by the tangled world of grown-ups in flashy places. The evolution of young reader of pure swill to English professor is hard to explain.

So my writing program has been bandying about the idea of teaching a YA workshop. I certainly won’t be the instructor. I completely lack the expertise or interest. But if they came up with a course on 1970s schlock such as Jaws, Carrie, Alive, and The Godfather –yes all movies—count me in.

What do you think? Is it okay that so many adults read YA? Or should the bookstores card them or at least require signed consent from their children?